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California Rejects Animal Confinement: Will Other States Follow?

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Did you feel that? The world just got a little bit kinder. In a major victory over corporate greed and torture, California voters said Yes to Proposition 2 this week, sending perhaps the strongest signal in our nation’s history that the public will not tolerate the inhumane treatment of animals in factory farms. 

The bill, which becomes law in 2015, will affect nearly 20 million animals, giving egg-laying hens, pigs used for breeding and calves raised for veal enough room to turn around, lie comfortably and fully extend their limbs. The law will phase out battery cages, gestation crates and veal crates, making California the first state to ever ban all three confinement devices. 

“This was an effort made possible only through the hard work of thousands of tireless, relentless, devoted animal advocates, both in California and across the nation,” said Paul Shapiro, senior director of the Humane Society of the United States’ Factory Farming Campaign. “My gratitude and admiration go out to everyone who volunteered for the campaign, donated to the campaign and were employed by the campaign.” 

As soon as HSUS, Farm Sanctuary, Animal Place and other animal advocates revealed last year that they were working on a ballot measure to end animal confinement inside California’s factory farms, activists realized the initiative could have a major impact on how animals raised for food are treated throughout the nation. Proponents quickly organized thousands of compassionate volunteers, who hit the pavement and asked registered voters in California to sign petitions in order for the measure to appear on the November ballot. With more than enough signatures to qualify, the citizens initiative eventually known as Prop 2 became a cause célèbre: Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey dedicated time on their chat shows to feature HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle and discuss the measure,[1] bloggers debated Prop 2’s chances, celebrities hosted fundraisers[2] and newspapers across the U.S. took official positions on it. Indeed, The New York Times, one of the country’s oldest and most respected newspapers, gave Prop 2 a ringing endorsement and called for “every state to enact similar laws.”[3] This ruffled the feathers of the ag industry, of course. The morning after The New York Times published its endorsement, Chuck Jolley ― a PR guy for agribusiness ― took exception to the paper using the term “factory farming” and complained about animal-rights groups and the Pew Foundation standing up to Big Ag.[4] Jolley later ranked Pacelle first in his list of “The Animal Ag Industries 5 Biggest Enemies” (sic).[5] 

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Agribusiness as Usual 

Agribiz apologists did little to help themselves during the campaign, claiming their standards were already as high as they could be. “[T]he humane treatment of farm animals is already required by California law and the health and welfare of egg-laying hens is the top priority of California egg farmers,” they stated in a press release last July.[6] Anyone who has been inside a battery-egg facility knows that hens suffer unimaginable horrors to produce eggs.  

For the benefit of voters who have not stepped into a battery shed, three weeks before the election, Mercy For Animals released a video taken by one of their undercover investigators as he worked inside Norco Ranch, a California battery-egg plant, during August and September.[7] (Norco, the largest intensive-confinement egg operation in the state, together with its owner, MoArk, are the largest funders of the campaign against Prop 2.) The images, shown on national news, depicted workers severely abusing hens. But instead of reprimanding Norco and calling for their own investigation, Prop 2 opponents declared that the plant “fully complies with veterinarian-approved, industry standards for egg farming. The ranch follows the United Egg Producers’ strict animal welfare guidelines formulated by independent animal welfare experts.”[8] Apparently, “strict animal welfare guidelines” include letting workers violently swing chickens to break their necks, then discard them, still alive, on the floor. The video also shows hens with body parts trapped in the egg-conveyor belt and caging, gasping hens struggling among piles of already dead birds and hens with bloody, open wounds. All of these cruelties are in addition to the standard industry practice of cramming six or more hens together into one small wire cage. (Note to agribusiness: When activists release footage showing egregious animal cruelty and carnage inside one of your factory farms, it is not in your best interest to say the facility “conforms to industry-accepted standards.”) 

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The egg industry attempted to scare the public with tales of the high prices they’d pay for eggs if Prop 2 passed; indeed, the cost of a dozen eggs had already increased 50 percent in two years, going from $1.30 in 2006 to $2.20 per dozen in March 2008. This caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, which began investigating the possibility that egg producers had conspired to restrict supply as part of a scheme to boost prices.[9] The egg industry blamed the increase on the rising cost of feed, but Cal-Maine Chairman and CEO Fred Adams Jr. made it clear at a June investment conference that his factory farm colludes with other egg producers to restrict supply and drive up prices. “While it makes it easier to communicate that when feed costs are up, egg prices should be up, that’s not really the case,” he said. “Eggs are up because the supply and demand is in good balance, and it’s reflecting higher prices on its own. If the supply of eggs remains in check, or favorable to the demand side, I think we will have minimum problems in raising prices.”[10] In addition to the Justice Department investigation, egg producers were hit with a class-action lawsuit for their alleged price fixing. 

Meanwhile, the egg industry’s own California economist estimated Prop 2 would only add about a penny to the price of each egg.[11] Twelve cents a dozen. That’s an incredibly small price to pay for a little humane treatment. 

Animal exploiters continued to put their boot-clad feet in their mouths even as the battle against Prop 2’s modest reform was all but lost. In an article for the agribusiness publication Feedstuffs, rancher Trent Loos used Wayne Pacelle’s appearance on Oprah as a platform to compare hens crammed in battery cages with ― are you sitting down? ― humans living in condominiums: “As if [Pacelle] had been re-incarinated [sic] from some laying hen, he professed to know what the hen thinks about living in these high rise condos, which to me seem no different than the people stacked on top of people in our biggst [sic] cities.” [12] Well, I suppose that’s a fair analogy ― provided all those people are stuck together in elevators. 

A Wing and a Prayer 

Corporations behind the mega-farms are no doubt wondering why the public didn’t side with them. What made the majority of California voters decide that treating animals with a bit of kindness trumped saving a few dollars at the grocery store? What made them hear the pleas of Prop 2’s compassionate campaigners over the roar of scare tactics shouted by the factory farmers’ front group? “Agriculture went to sleep on this one,” opined Harry Cline, editor of Western Farm Press, “or it figured it was a no-win battle from the beginning and did not want to spend millions to counter the proponents of the ‘free the chicken movement’ with little chance of success.”[13] 

Actually, Harry, agriculture did spend millions to fight the measure. In fact, they amassed an anti-Prop 2 war chest that will probably surpass $8 million, once all the receipts are tallied.[14] Most of these funds came from out-of-state corporate producers worried that a law enforcing the humane treatment of animals on the left coast would surely impact their bottom line in every darkened, dismal shed across the nation. “I think [the egg industry believes] that if a few states start doing these things, it will come to their states,” said Mitch Head, a spokesman for United Egg Producers, a trade group representing 95 percent of the nation’s commercial egg producers.[15] Opponents were so desperate they even tried to funnel $3 million of public funds into the fight; Yes on Prop 2 campaigners weren’t fooled, and neither was the federal court that quickly blocked agribusiness from illegally using the money.[16] 

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As one of the volunteers collecting signatures to get Prop 2 on the ballot, my impression is that most people believe animals should be treated humanely. Those who signed my petitions were eager to ban battery cages, gestation crates and veal crates. One petition-signer told me: “I pray for the day all these poor hens can at least spread their wings.” Some voters had no idea farmed animals are confined in devices so small they can’t even turn around. Other voters knew about and were sickened by it, wondering why it took a citizens initiative to change the status quo. Actually, animal advocates had tried for more than two decades to get California legislators to ease the worst privations inflicted upon animals, such as battery cages, but animal agribusiness was always there with their expensive lobbyists to thwart these efforts.[17] Fortunately, California is one of 24 states in the country that allows its citizens to bring a measure like Prop 2 directly to the voters, so we’ll finally be able to grant farmed animals a little room to move.  

As Gene Baur, president of Farm Sanctuary, put it: “This campaign did an amazing job of raising public awareness about the cruel treatment farm animals endure at the hands of an industry that has consistently fought meaningful change for animals.” 

The ag industry has taken the view that the sky is falling and that the new law will drive egg production out of California, which ranks as the world’s eighth largest economy. But farmers are exceptionally adaptable, and since the law won’t go into effect until 2015, they’ll have six years to change their business model to meet higher humane standards. Six years. That’s how long it took to build the transcontinental railroad across the United States in the 1860s.  

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Mark Hawthorne is the author of two books on animal rights: Bleating Hearts: The Hidden World of Animal Suffering and Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism, both from Changemakers Books. He gave up eating meat after (more...)
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